Don't forget the 3 W's – and the vaccine when it's available

zoranm/E+, Getty Images
(zoranm/E+, Getty Images)

Deaths from COVID-19 have crested 330,000 in the U.S. just as two newly approved vaccines are starting to be distributed across the country. The message for Americans is twofold: Stay positive, but stay safe.

Public health authorities are balancing optimism about the breakthrough development and distribution of vaccines — a third is in the approval pipeline — with the commonplace precautions that have become the watchwords of 2020. The prospect of vaccination remains many weeks or even months away for most people, and even widespread vaccination will not eliminate the threat of the pandemic for long after that.

"First in line for vaccines in our communities are health care workers who have been and will be working overtime to keep people alive from COVID-19 and the long list of diseases and conditions that can lead to death," said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, the American Heart Association's chief medical officer for prevention.

But the news on vaccines is promising. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed in record time and confirmed as highly effective and safe. The AstraZeneca alternative could be authorized by February.

This extraordinary medical accomplishment has detractors, however. Online rumors pop up faster than they can be debunked: No, safety protocols weren't waived to get the vaccines into circulation. No, side effects aren't severe and aren't more likely to kill you than COVID-19 itself. And no, no, no, the vaccines have nothing to do with microchip-tracking people.

"The science leading to the vaccines is representative of the evolution of science using innovation — and the rigor of research to bring new treatments to the people who need them — just as we have seen with new pharmaceutical options for treatment of heart disease, diabetes and cancer," Sanchez said.

When people can get vaccinated is a complicated matter of priorities and logistics.

Health care professionals and first responders are at the front of the line, along with residents and staff of nursing facilities. Workers deemed essential, such as those in education or food service; older adults and medically at-risk may all queue up ahead of the general population. After all, older people and people with underlying conditions, such as heart disease, are more likely to suffer severe consequences from COVID-19.

While we're waiting — and long after — we'll still need to observe those familiar pandemic precautions, the three W's: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Watch your distance, staying 6 feet apart from those who do not live in your household. Wear a mask. (Keep in mind that wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing in public.) For the time being, until vaccination levels are much higher in the United States, it is important to avoid crowds, particularly in indoor spaces.

And remember: Other communicable illnesses haven't taken a holiday. It's even more important to get a flu shot this season to avoid a serious double whammy. Catching the flu can make you more susceptible to COVID-19. The benefits far outweigh any inconvenience. A flu shot is clinically proven to reduce chances of hospitalization, with the best numbers for children (74% less likely) and pregnant women (40%), according to the AHA.

Developments regarding COVID-19 and the vaccines are fast-evolving. Collaborate with your health care professionals on how to stay healthy and safe in the days ahead.